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San Antonio Has a Way of... Part 3 - Catalina, A Chili Queen

“We must find the police. We must give it to the owner; but we don’t know the owner. Gonzalo…children, I am not a happy Mamacita at this

moment”, Catalina pleaded in exasperation. ” Maria get me that extra cazuela and a potato sack. I am going to wrap this pistola and put it away. Listen to me, boys. You must not go near it…promise me; until I can decide what to do about it”, she sternly said, standing with her hands on her hips. The children knew their mother was no longer shaken by the experience ; they all nodded while at complete attention. They now see the Mamacita that takes charge and makes decisions to keep their family safe. They had no Papa around. Catalina was their Papa and Mama during these kinds of times.

“Mama, I see there is a customer out front by our tables for some chili”, said Maria after giving her mother the cazuela.“Yes, of course…we can not ignore the hungry people for our chili and tortillas. Go and help the man, Maria”, she said while wrapping the pistol in the sack, putting it in the pot and securing it among some crates stacked under the cart. “Now Gabriela, go and help your sister with the chili. Boys! Gonzalo, you must sit still out front where I can see you. Twins, see if Tico needs any water and clean up his droppings. We do not keep a messy place here at the Calderon family chili stand!’, she ordered waving her hands in all directions.

“Hello, Senor. May I get you some of our chili? “, Maria asked the man.” Amos Murphy is the name”, he said standing before her as tall as his height would allow him . He wore well scuffed boots, a pair of once fine brown trousers, now patched and with tears at the seams. His black felt hat was like the trousers…. of a similar vintage and state of decay. The formerly white , but now with a grayish hue , linen shirt was probably once made for for a man of position; and his greasy black tie hung so the bow was no consequence. A heavy woven wool waistcoat of a nondescript color was surely meant for a much cooler clime. The smart and elegant forest green velvet coat was a garment out of place. It had covered buttons, was tailored by a top house-probably in New Orleans ,that was obvious. Fancy black stitching was prominent on the lapels, which were made of a fine pale gray wool. “Why yes, dear young lady.” A plate of your finest chili …some beans and fresh tortillas also, I believe”, he said with a flourish as if he had rehearsed the speech beforehand.

“Let me help you, Maria. Yes senor, you look familiar. Have I seen you on our plaza before?”, Catalina asked with a cautious tone in her halting English. He tipped his hat and smiled widely with missing teeth. “The name is Amos Murphy,

you probably have seen me at my former place of employ. My brother is Rian. He is the boss man…you know him. He runs the show at the slaughterhouse you frequent for your meats. You see, I needed a change from manual labor. I thank my brother for giving me a chance to get started after traveling to your fine city of San Antonio from our home in Ireland…. 2 months past”, his brogue seeming to be more pronounced now. Catalina thought this man was not what he seemed or what he said. It seemed odd that a man so short of stature could be Mr Murphy’s brother; he was probably a head shorter and did not have the strong body of a man who worked with animals. He reminded her of the ads she has seen while passing the cigar store on the way to the plaza; however, the pictures of those men were very fancy. This man’s efforts were lacking in every department.

“Coffee too, sir?, asked Maria. “Yes, that would be lovely dear lady”…. he slipped a small leather flask from his waistcoat and poured some clear spirits in the cup. Catalina approached from behind after putting the pistol away and said, “Is there anything else, senor?, She inquired.” No senora, I’ll enjoy my fine repast and be on my way. I am presently and proudly in the employ of Herr Schmidt; there, over there, at the large tent”, he said as he pointed to the tent where business was starting to become busy as the skies grew darker. You understand, I am presently in charge of the poker game and we are in need of more participants ; the other two gents found themselves a bit short of funds and left my game quite early.

Amos Murphy quickly paid his penny and ate his chili, beans and tortillas. He gave Maria an extra penny, mentioning that her smile reminded him of his niece back in Ireland and that he appreciated her cordial service.“Mama, Mama.” “What do you want, Gonzalo.” “That is the man.” What man are you speaking about,” she said impatiently, suddenly remembering she had to deal with the pistola.”That is the man that put the pistola between two barrels behind the tent where the fancy ladies are, ” he blurted out. “You did not say anything about seeing a man put the pistola by some barrels.” ” I was scared. I did not steal it”,  he mumbled, then started to cry. “Quiet now. It is all right, Gonzalo”, his Mama said soothingly. At that moment Officer Langley, the City Policeman, strode up and asked Maria if he could speak to her mother. “Mrs. Calderon; there has been a robbery over at Herr Schmidt’s and I would like to ask you some questions.” He proceeded to recount that a member of the early poker game had had his small silver pistol stolen. It had great sentimental value. The small Mexican lady that worked there mentioned while out back of the tent having a cigarette,  she saw a small Mexican boy pick a silver object from s between some  barrels. She mentioned that had seen him before at Catalina’s chili stand.

“Yes Senor Langley”, she said relieved. “I have it in a safe place.” She retrieved the packet, and handed it to him. Langley unwrapped it. “This looks very much like the one he lost. I see the small crack on the right side of the handle.” “Gonzalo, tell the man how you got the pistola.” ” I saw the man in the green coat put it by the barrels and I took it. I didn’t steal it. I thought he didn’t want it anymore. Maybe it was broken.”, he said with wide eyes swelling with tears. “Mrs. Calderon, I believe your little boy has solved this case quite nicely. I’ll take this pistol and we will not speak of the matter again.” “Thank God, Senor Langley. I will say a prayer at Mass for you. I did not know what to do. Gonzalo will never do anything like that again.” "Yes ma’am, I’m sure he won’t. Have a good evening.” "Won’t you have some chili and tortillas? You must be very hungry.”"I have eaten here often when I have Plaza duty. You make a fine bowl of chili red. I may be back later in the evening”, he said with a smile.

“It was the end of their evening. The time was almost ten. Catalina could not remember when she had been so tired. The work was not the reason.The pistola event had made the trip to the plaza very difficult that night.She just wanted to get home and finally to rest.They had a long trek home in the dark with just their one lantern to see by. All of the children were packing up as they always did. The twins were hitching up Tico, who had been sleeping the whole time they were at the plaza, except for a few munches of corn stalks. Maria was pouring water on the stone fire ring and putting the grate on the cart. Gonzalo , Gabriela and Catalina were sweeping all around their area. The city crew would be coming early in the morning to clean the plaza, but they always left it clean and tidy.”Mrs. Calderon, I believe?” It was Herr Schmidt addressing Catalina in his thick accent as he walked up to the almost packed cart.”Yes, Senor Schmidt. I am Senora Calderon.” “I believe I have to thank you and your family for solving a problem we had this evening. “ ”Problema?,” she said with a quizzical look on her face." "I had an employee that cheated one of my customers ; he had stolen his silver pistol from the man’s coat pocket. The man that took this pistol was wearing a fancy green coat. We found out from Langley , the policeman , that this man’s name is Bartlett, not Murphy as he claimed when I had hired him to run my poker game. I guess he is wanted in New Orleans for the same thing-robbing a card player. Maybe other places too.” “It was not a pleasant experience for me, my son should not have picked up that pistola, Senor Schmidt”.“I understand, but I am very pleased that  he did take that pistol. I now have a happy customer. Mrs. Calderon, here is a small reward for your help. Besides, all of my people say you are the best Chili Queen on the Plaza.!”, as he handed her five silver dollars. She looked in her hand, astonished and speechless. “Children. Look what Senor….”, just as she looked up to thank him he was almost back to his tent. He stopped at the door flap, turned in the golden light from inside and tipped his hat to her.

Mrs. Calderon now had the immense sum of $5.26 bound tightly and safely in one of her mother’s lace handkerchiefs.The night had been good. Twenty five bowls sold; plus the penny from the man in the green coat. She and her children would be back the next night to sell more of their chili, refritos, fresh tortillas, and strong hot coffee. The five dollars would be saved and kept safe; buried in the tin box under their jacal. Maybe there would also be presents for Papa this year when he came home for Christmas.

San Antonio, Texas Has a Way Of... Part 2 - Catalina, A Chili Queen

“Mama, will we all have enough money when the new year is 1900?”, Gabriella said in her typical sweet voice. “God always provides for our family, little one. When it is 1900, we will still make the fresh tortillas and Tico will pull our cart with all of the things

Chiles Drying in the Sun

we need to make our meat stew with chili for the  people to buy at the plaza. ”

Gabriella was only seven years old, but seemed much older. She always asked her mother detailed questions about life and the things she observed seeing every day ; like when they went to the plaza to sell their chili con carne …every day except Sunday, the Lord’s day.They used that money to live ! They were now alone in their little jacal on Zarzamora Street -her oldest sister Maria was twelve, Gonzalo was six, the twins Enrique and Eleuterio were ten …and of course their Mama, Catalina. Grandma Lourdes had died last winter. She had such a hard time breathing.One morning she did not get out of bed. She always was the first up at 430 to start the cooking fire.”It was not a home without grandma”, said Gabriella that day. Grandpa Teofilo Calderon had  gone to heaven five years before. Her family had made the trek to downtown San Antonio from their home, west of town, for over thirty years. Catalina’s husband worked as a vaquero on a large hacienda in Coahuila across the Rio Grande River in Mexico . He came home at least two times a year; for Christmas and at his wife’s birthday in June. He always brought gifts for the children. It was not the best arrangement for a family, Jesus knew that, but he had a good job and could not afford to leave it. The money he sent home was needed to make sure his family stayed warm, had food to eat and were not living in a tent .

Catalina’s father, Teofilo had built the one room jacal in 1862, just like the one he had lived in as a child on the Rio Grande in Southwest Texas  . Over the years some mesquite poles and the roof thatch were replaced. Jesus and his father in law added a small addition made of caliche bricks that they dug from around the little house. That helped them to make the garden larger since caliche is like thick clay and does not drain well. No matter how much burro droppings and straw was turned into the soil, it was hard to have a good yield from a garden.Catalina now could have more corn to grind into masa for tortillas, chiles to hang in ristras and pinto beans for their family staples.These were also needed to sell at the plaza; since every bowl of chili con carne came with freshly made refritos and tortillas.

The twins job was to hitch up the elderly burro Tico, to the cart and help Maria pack and load all of the goods for the three hour journey to the plaza. They had to be ready to leave by noon. Mama did not cook her chili con carne at home , as many of the other ChiliQueens did, she made it right at the plaza . Upon arriving at the their favorite spot, the children would unhitch Tico (“little brother”) ,tether him to to a blocked wagon wheel, set down a bucket of water and some corn stalks to eat. Next was to set up the tables, start the fire and get some water heating from the big old clay jug.As the children, supervised by Maria, finished the set up, Catalina made her way across the plaza and down the rows of cow pens, to the slaughter house she had always visited. Mr. Murphy, who spoke fairly good Spanish, had been trading odd pieces of beef that he could not sell to the butcher shops or hotels and restaurants, to Catalina (and to her mother before her) in exchange for chili con carne , tortillas and beans for some of the slaughterhouse worker’s supper . He instructed the men to cut it exactly to the sizes she wanted for her chiliThis made for a good arrangement for everyone. Murphy spread the word about how Catalina’s was the best chili, freshly made , and a bargain …. tortillas,refried beans and coffee for only a penny! Twelve year old Maria spoke perfect English, so she was the ‘waitress” , at the family chili stand….her charm and big smile also brought back happy return customers.

Longhorn at The Stockyards

The plaza started to look crowded, now that evening was approaching. The red sunset was casting an orange and yellow glow over the clouds of smoke from all the cooking fires. A three piece band with two guitars and an accordion was setting up their music stands,hoping to garner some money from the crowds to be. could make some money. Over beside Herr Schmidt’s big tent, well worn, tan and stained , a card game already had three players dealing poker. Herr Schmidt’s ominous tower of a man was guarding and keeping a keen eye at the tent, watching and making sure no bad behavior erupted. Gambling in public was illegal…. but the City Police with their shiny bright star badges,a uniform of floppy hats and coats open for access to their revolvers, except at the neck, mostly turned a blind eye. Maybe a favor or some coin changed hands. Inside the tent , the lanterns clearly outlined the figures within. The three women that worked in the tent; one with red hair the color of cinnamon rock candy, a large boned blond girl , and a tiny Mexican woman wearing a ruffled skirt of bright yellow and green may have been part of the arrangement, one would consider.

Catalina was now busy adding the pieces of meat, the chiles that Gabriella had ground in the molcajete while she was gone ( she wanted them to be the freshest possible), some oregano from her garden, three split pig’s feet;her special ingredient to the bubbling pot. “Mama, come quick behind the cart”, Gabriella called out. Catalina, thinking the worse, left the pot and hurried around back to where the children were standing.“I didn’t steal it. I didn’t”, pleaded Little Gonzalo. “I found it over by that big tent on the ground. Can’t we sell it and buy some food for Mama to make her chili?”. Eleuterio was holding it and pointing it to the sky.“Put that down,now”, screamed Maria.Catalina came upon all the commotion and saw it laying on the serape that covered the back end of their cart.”That is a pistola.Put that down, immediately. Don’t anyone touch it. Leave it be!”, she commanded. A small, very fancy, old style shiny pistol with a pearl or bone handle lay there while all looked intently at it.” Where did you get that pistola,Gonzalo? It is very dangerous. We don’t have guns. Only your papa has a pistola for rattlesnakes and maybe to shoot a peccary,” she instructed. “We must find the police. We must give it to somebody, the owner or……


San Antonio, Texas Has a Way Of... Part 1 - Catalina, A Chili Queen

San Antonio , Texas has a way of staying in a person’s memories. Maybe just a one day layover – as my friend did as a summerexchange student experience traveling all the way on a long bus ride in 1963. The trip is 1775 plus miles from Minneapolis to Guadalajara , Mexico. San Antonio is a natural place to linger . Not only the historical Alamo and the rich history all around the region, but it’s picturesque settings on the San Antonio River  and the famous “River Walk”….. People also love to take the river tours through the city - a place that is an experience so close to the Old World cities of Europe. Of course, these days that experience is so popular. Of all the cities in Texas, San Antonio is ranked at the top for tourist attractions. Of all the major cities in the US ,it ranks in The Top 10 List for “Foodies”Why should we be surprised?

As a youngster of 8 or 9 , I remember one particular year while living with my Dad and stepmother in San Antonio, I think I was in the 3RD grade. We lived very close to the part of town where the Mexican businesses were ; including lots of food stores ,tiendas,,cantinas, and restaurants. Obviously, those memories are peppered with thoughts that include food experiences of all types.  I have already recounted some in previous pieces that  I have written. Not sure about which stories I have passed to the reader before ( and too lazy to go back and search),but I want to stay with the obvious food theme that we all think of for Texas ….MEXICAN FOOD ; actually what Texas is famous forTEX MEX food.

We lived on Kentucky Street, just a block east of N.Zarzamora Street…which was parallel to a busy highway that led out of town to the west,Culebra Road (which means snake in Spanish-it is a curvy road) . Across that busy highway was where one found most of the different Mexican stores,businesses and lots of homes…..very close together. I remember the roads had gaping pot holes and were not well kept. Many did not have sidewalks, or just partial ones. I would get out of school and 2 block away from my house on the corner was a little Mexican cafe. It had one of those screen doors with a ceramic soda push bar in the center,I believe it was forGrapette soda.I would get fresh hot tortillas and butter-3 for 7 cents,5 cents more for a Dr.Pepper or a Grapette. Students would come in from the Catholic church at Little Flower School and we would play the juke box,whoever had a spare nickel, and visit. They were all Hispanic kids and I loved making friends with them. I had only been in San Antonio from California a few months. I noticed that the students uniforms were very plain and simple. The boys woreDickies khaki pants (like my Dad always wore as a carpenter ) and white shirts. My Dad told me it was a poor parrish when I asked him about it   later, their families could not afford the traditional ones.(The uniform is much the same today-some 60 years later)

One day while leaving the cafe and heading home, I noticed an old, dusty black Chevrolet Sedan Delivery with the back door open parked behind the cafe. There was a big German Shepherd dog inside. He jumped out and quickly trotted up the street . How a dog can smile and have his jaws firmly gripping a full sized hog’s head is something I’ll never forget…but that is what I saw. The hog’s eyes were wide open and the big pink ears flapping in the wind as the dog’s brisk place away led him further from that cafe. Determined not to have a sure loss of his prize. The driver came out of the back screen door, shouting,waving his arms and  running frantically after the dog, his bloody white coat flapping in the wind. It was obvious that he had been alerted to this serious “Grand Theft in Progress”! We kids surely were not going to miss all of this excitement….. the neighborhood was normally pretty quiet- and we gave chase. The little man in the bloody white coat was no match for that dog. I’m sure that dog had dreams about that day for the rest of his life. This whole scene is almost like one from a movie…and well could be so.  What do you think the little man told his boss?The truth…maybe or maybe not? It’s not a story most would believe , but it happened. I recall this was in February and there was a local tradition in the community,in fact in most of south Texas ….. most families and restaurants made tamales. The Texas style tamale is very different from the types that are popular on the Pacific coast. They are smaller and are a party favorite,usually made by the dozens.It was pretty evident that the south Texas and Mexican tradition using the head of a pig for tamales had to put on hold at the cafe for that day!

You see it was this neighborhood and the people that lived there that made a lasting impression on me. Even though over the years i would live in San Antonio from time to time, these times made an imprint forever. Tamales!!!! Enchiladas, tacos, Menudo Rojo,FrijolesRefritos,Mole Sauce…….the list is long and mostly familiar to us all. San Antonio is often given the credit for TexMex style food. Mexican home cooking that evolved in many directions ;unfortunately some available in the US today is far removed from those early home cooked dishes. The first chile powder can be traced to Willie Gebhardt; in 1896 started selling his chile powder to the public. He was born in Germany and his family had settled in Seguin, Texas, just a few miles from San Antonio.There was a point after World War I when his company imported 90 percent off all the chiles consumed in the USA! In the spirit of a naturalized American “Foodie Pioneer” I want to offer you a Fresh Chile Recipe . Willie was born in Germany; came to Texas as a child and soon learned English.As a young man in the tavern and bar business ,he saw a need and developed a product using chiles….a vegetable that had been new to his family. Now as a new Texan , he was ready to take the seasonal fresh chile from the kitchen to a form that could be used all year long. This became a food product that influenced the way Americans cooked ; and today the impact is especially evident.

“Mama, will there be music in the plaza tonight? “, said Gonzalo,who was only six years old and looked forward to the music . Mama replied,”I am sure you will hear some fine musicians . There may be some men playing guitarras or perhaps a little band with singers too.” “You will see lots of wonderful things,Gonzalo. But remember, we all need to help make our chile for the people to buy”.

Catalina and her five children were loading their cart with all they would need to make the trek from the west of the city to Alamo Plaza. They wanted to be there early so she could get her favorite spot to sell her famous Chili Con Carne. She was very proud of  the family recipe that her mother had first started selling in the Plaza de Las Islas after the war in 1866. Later they moved to theMilitary Plaza by the rail yards and the jail.Catalina had been just a baby then; but she continued to travel with her mother and her brothers and sisters to the plazas . She was now a second generation Chili Queen of San Antonio as the newspapers had named the women who came to sell their fiery brew to all takers. It was now 1899 and the big crowds of people would allow Catalina to make money for her family.

Her mother Lourdes was gone now. Catalina’s husband  Jesus , was in Mexico working on a cattle ranch. There still was always a need for her family. “Mama, will we all have enough money when the new year is 1900 ? “, Gabriella said in her typical sweet voice.


Ode to Pie

When I die I want to be buried in a pie,
Not just an ordinary pie, but an extraordinary pie.
One that has been made with your best flour, just finely ground, grown on high plains of North Dakota, tender with fresh leaf lard from Arkansas Berkshire hogs, and butter the offering of happy a Wisconsin Guernsey lady.
Let me rest quietly, I care not where is my pie.
In that serene delicious pie-Michigan cherries, Oregon pears, Hawaiian mangoes, Kentucky and Indiana paw paws, Texas pecans, Illinois pumpkins, California apricots and walnuts, and Georgia peanut butter and peaches.
Caressed by sweet Washington apples, Puerto Rico Pineapples, Arizona dates, New Mexico Hatch chilies, North Carolina strawberries, and Louisiana blackberries.
Enveloped by Maine blueberries, Wisconsin cranberries, Connecticut plums, Ohio Rhubarb, Idaho huckleberries, and Florida Key Limes.
I may need to be happy without some chocolate, kiwi fruit, oranges, sweet potatoes, custard eggs from Iowa or a shoo fly for my pie,
But you know they would be welcome in my pie.
If I know that I am in this pie for all eternity I,
Content for sure not alone in my pie.
I mostly plan to enjoy my company of new friends-lovely grubs, earthworms, crawlers, and wigglers alike and many.
We will have many a piece of pie together-no milk or coffee will we or I,
For sure all will love my pie as I do love my pie.
What more could a keeled over guy ask for inside his pie,
But to be buried in a my sweetly serene pie?
Not just an ordinary pie,
But an extraordinary pie.

When the Shadows Seem to Grow Longer

When the shadows seem to grow longer, a time has come to stop, turn and face the sunsets, not for a moment, but until the sun has left the horizon.

When the shadows seem to grow longer, it is a time to note the essence of how one feels, and to know that this may be the final script of the senior class play.

When the shadows seem to grow longer, when it is all said and done, we must turn to our right and then to our left, shake the hand of that new person with GRACE, offer a genuine smile and know that we must look for the next sunrise with a genuine calmness.

When the shadows seem to grow longer, know it is a time to look for a kind face, a familiar face, a smile… be sure to linger and look into a clear and honest eye and know this is all the wealth one will ever need.

When the shadows seem to grow longer, it is a time to gather familiar faces and these new persons all around, sharing the essence of how one feels around a table, enjoy the kindness, watch the sunsets until the sun has left the horizon and have some comfortable food.